Leptospirosis in Dogs - Common Symptoms and Treatment
Whenever I’ve had to treat dogs with Leptospirosis, I often observed that pet owners seem to know so little about the disease and its causes. In Southern Oregon Leptospirosis is one of the most dangerous diseases your dog can encounter. I’ll try to address that as much as possible in this brief article.
By Dr. Keaton Massie, DVM
Leptospirosis is an infection caused by spiral-shaped bacteria called leptospires. It is commonly found in the urine of domestic and wild animals, especially rodents and small mammals. Dogs are particularly vulnerable to leptospirosis due to their curious nature and can become infected by direct contact with infected urine, urine-contaminated feed or water. Infected water is the most common source. While many animals can potentially become infected, you’ll mostly find that other household pets like cats are less prone to get the disease.
Leptospirosis is also a zoonotic disease, which means it can be transmitted between animals and humans. So if an animal is diagnosed it is critical that safety precautions be observed like washing your hands after cleaning up urine.
What Causes Leptospirosis?
The leptospira bacteria thrive in warm and wet environments and can survive for weeks in water and soil outside a host body. Many different animals can spread leptospirosis through their urine, primarily rodents and small mammals like rats and raccoons.
Dogs most frequently contract leptospirosis from urine-contaminated water, especially in still or slowly moving bodies of water like puddles, ponds, or lakes. The bacteria can enter the body through the skin or mucous membranes (eyes, nose, or mouth). Leptospirosis is also transmitted through contact with urine-contaminated soil, food, bedding, or bites from infected animals.
The clinical signs of leptospirosis in dogs can easily be misinterpreted for other ailments. This makes it difficult for dog owners to look out for them. Symptoms may vary widely from mild to severe. Early symptoms can be mild and easily overlooked. It usually includes lethargy, and a fever. As the disease progresses a loss of appetite, increased thirst, frequent urination, vomiting, and diarrhea. This is often due to kidney failure starting, which is why it is critical to diagnose early.
As I mentioned earlier, diagnosing Leptospirosis in dogs can be pretty challenging because most of the symptoms are not specific to the disease. If I suspect a leptospirosis infection based on physical examination and the exposure history of the dog, I usually recommend blood and urine tests to confirm.
To definitively diagnose leptospirosis, it is best to combine serologic tests (MAT- Microscopic Agglutination Test) to detect antibodies and DNA-PCR tests to detect Leptospira bacteria in the blood or urine. Chest x-rays may also be needed to check for a pulmonary hemorrhage.
Treatment of Leptospirosis in Dogs
Dogs stand a good chance of recovery when leptospirosis is treated early and aggressively. Dogs that survive acute kidney injuries may improve or develop chronic kidney diseases. However, there is always the risk of permanent residual kidney or liver damage.
Antibiotics are effective against the acute stages of the disease. The dog will also need supportive care to manage their symptoms, including IV fluids to keep them hydrated and medication to manage pain and fever. Dogs with severe kidney or liver damage may require hospitalization for intensive care. Often I say we can treat the bacteria but we can’t treat the kidney disease, which is why prevention is key.
Pet owners should be aware that animals can get infected again after surviving a leptospirosis infection. This is because different serovars of the bacteria exist, and your pet may get infected by another strain of the bacteria.
How can I prevent leptospirosis in my dog?
One of the best ways to prevent the disease is to ensure that your dog is vaccinated against it. You should discuss with your veterinarian about getting a leptospirosis vaccine. The four-serovar vaccine is currently the only vaccine recommended by experts. Although the vaccine doesn't protect against all strains of leptospires, it is effective against the most common ones.
Another essential step is to limit your dog’s exposure to stagnant water bodies and puddles of water. Always ensure your dog has access to clean drinking water, and prevent it from roaming in areas where wild animals frequent. Ensure you keep rodent problems under control and store pet food in tight-fitting covers.
I cannot stress enough the importance of taking leptospirosis seriously. If your dog begins to show symptoms you suspect may be an infection, get it to the vet immediately. Early detection and treatment are paramount to saving the life of your furry friend. You should also take some of the preventive measures listed above and keep a watchful eye on the type of water your dog plays in.
If you need more information about leptospirosis in dogs, contact me below.